Noah Guthrie (from the album Blue Wall available as a self-release) (by Bryant Liggett)
Some may throw out the term Emo Folk to describe the latest from South Carolina electro-Folkie Noah Guthrie. However, most music has some form of emotion folded somewhere in the recipe, the sound is just more present than elsewhere on Noah Guthrie’s latest in Blue Wall, a record that dances with Americana and Blues as it delivers a straight-ahead dose of classic Roots Rock. The mid-tempo “Hell or High Water” kicks off the dozen track release, the first of many cuts on the album loaded with memorable bits of advice like ‘sometimes risking it all can feel like the safest thing’.
“Things To Fix” has wonderful acoustic picking where Guthrie rattles off a to-do list of things that need repair as he ‘skips over number one’. It’s a self-help seminar packed in a tune. Blue Wall is also not without its doses of Rock. “Welcome the Stranger” opens up with power chords that quickly take a back-seat to Noah Guthrie’s ache, only to come back to close an emotional rocker. “Let the Damn Thing Break” has a subtle Cow Punk chug that gives way to more power chords, “The Last Time I Think of You” is a heavy ballad, and the title track closer. with its gentle acoustic picking. shows Guthrie can drop a campfire weeper. Aside from the writing which is stellar, Guthrie’s assembled a hell of a band that can twang, turn blue, and bang-it-out with the best. Noah Guthrie is a Rocker, a Folkie and a Folk Rocker, and Blue Wall showcases as his sides.
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Spell Songs (from the album Spell Songs II: Let the Light In available on Quercus Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
A very interesting cross-media release, Spell Songs II is a follow-up to the band's previous, self-titled debut, which was very well-received upon release back in 2019. The Guardian called that album ‘a brave and magical creation’ and it would be hard to disagree. A wealth of talent lies behind this project, with producer Andy Bell at the helm (well-known for his work across the folk, roots and world music scenes). A fascinating collection of renowned musicians join him, including Karine Polwart (BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year, 2018), multi-award winning Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, the wonderful Senegalese player Seckou Keita, and folk luminaries Kris Drever, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux. You will hear kora, harp, cello, Indian harmonium, and more on this set, with the lyrical contributions of award-winning author, Robert MacFarlane, whose books covers such subjects as landscapes, nature, and language. Spell Songs II, according to the official press release, seeks to ‘create a listening experience that intersects music, literature, language and art, as a call to reawaken our love of the wild’.
With such talent involved, it should be no surprise that the music itself more than lives up to its promise. There is plenty of room for all to shine, starting with the delightful “Bramble” which skips lightly from soft piano and lovely vocals to moments where soft clouds of strings bloom and blossom, martial drums roll and the whole becomes a stirring, folk-song for the ages. “Bramble” moves so naturally through these stages that it feels like an organic creation itself. There are welcome moments of adventurousness and experimentation, which perfectly compliment the universal folk themes which lie at its heart. Follower, “St Kilda Wren”, sung in Gaelic, flows seamlessly forward, no less beautiful or beguiling that its predecessor.
Such music can all-too-easily fall into traps of being too sentimental, or too 'easy'. A few seconds listening to Spell Songs II ought to dispel such doubts. Though firmly rooted in time-honoured themes, nothing here sounds cliched or obvious. A great deal of this is doubtless down to the sheer quality and diversity of the players, all of whom sound fully committed and respectful of this project. Then too, there is an admirable element of embracing modern production techniques and ideas. These elements feel perfectly integrated, and add subtle twists and touches which catch the ear delightfully.
“Oak” takes us into Folk Rock territory. Fans of Richard Thompson and/or Fairport Convention which feel right at home here, which is no bad thing at all. These are very fine players, who could doubtless make any song fly, but thankfully the composition and arrangement, on “Oak” and every track here, are first-class. Spell Songs II do a wonderful job of conjuring up that ancient-yet-relevant feel which makes folk music so enduring. “Jay” rattles and rolls over bare-bones percussion, sparkling electric guitar, and Keita's peerless kora, which flutters like a butterfly (if you've not heard this fantastic player's other work, both solo and in collaboration, you really should). “Thrift (Dig in, Dig In)” features some highly affecting vocal harmonies. This is truly timeless material, spell songs indeed, which will weave their magic into your soul and carry you off to places full of warm wonder.
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Tinsley Ellis (from Devil May Care available on Alligator Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Tinsley Ellis is a banging guitar player. Filing him under Blues is just putting him in a box that won’t contain him; a man with Southern Rock groove and grit that cruises right alongside his Boogie Blues ability. Tinsley Ellis can stretches strings and genres with equal ease. He’s a dude that could lead a hippie Jam Band, delivering extended ripping solos while doling out a fat batch of the Blues riffs, offering all that and more on his latest in Devil May Care, a record that’s part Roots/part Rock in a Blues-driven Southern Rock package.
“One Less Reason” opens Devil May Care with an Allman Brothers nod; where dual lead guitars stride as Ellis sings about an ex giving him ‘one less reason to cry’. “Just Like Rain” and “Don’t Bury Our Love” are big Blues ballads but the fun cut of the batch is “JuJu”, where Tinsley Ellis lays out a Blues-lounge vibe. “28 Days” is a big ripper where Ellis laments a loveless run that goes on for weeks, making up for that streak of bad luck by dropping the hottest solo on the record. With Devil May Care dropping a sweet batch of Blues and an even sweeter batch of Southern Rock, it shows Tinsley Ellis is a dude that keeps himself planted in some great musical territory.
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Julie Christensen (from 11 From Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon available on Wirebird Records/JTMMusic) (by Lee Zimmerman)
When singer, and sometime insurgent, Julie Christensen chose to make an entire album dedicated to the songs of Kevin Gordon, it led to an ideal dynamic. Christensen isn’t exactly a household name but the diversity of her career gives reason to elevate her standing, given that it encompasses singing back-up for Leonard Cohen, several solo albums of her own, prime membership in the post punk outfits The Flesh Eaters and The Divine Horsemen, and an ancillary role in a later incarnation of X.
For his part, Kevin Gordon holds a stellar reputation as an astute singer and songwriter but despite a storied trajectory, his wider recognition has yet to be achieved. That’s a shame, because he’s clearly one of the best of his breed.
Still, Julie Christensen’s decision to cover certain songs from Gordon’s catalog might seem, at least initially, a choice that’s somewhat surprising. On the other hand, Christensen’s early residency in Austin, prior to her move to L.A., fueled her appreciation for superior song writing. So too, Christensen has experience when it comes to tapping the work of other artists. Her earlier albums found her sharing songs by Tom Waits, Tim Easton, Jim Lauderdale, Joni Mitchell, and Jimmy Webb, and, not surprisingly, Leonard Cohen as well.
It’s no wonder then that Christensen regards Gordon’s work with the same degree of reverence, enabling her to draw on its passion and pathos with equal measures of deliberation and determination. On the gritty but engaging “Gloryland”, the stealth-like sound of “Crowville”, and the decided drive of “Find My Way”, she seizes on the gravitas offered by each and delivers results that are both captivating and compelling. She’s more than astute interpreter; she’s able to extrapolate emotion and transform it through her own personal perspective. On a song like “Down to the Well” the lyrics allow her to meld intrigue with introspection
“See that woman in the corner, brother, she knows
Every inch of my body, every mile of my soul
We used to shake ’em on down til the blazin’ day
What’s she doin' here tonight watching me that way”
Hopefully then, 11 From Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon will bring further attention to both of the artists involved, and, in turn, bring them some added appreciation. Reverence and respect go hand in hand, and in this case, it makes for nothing less than an absolutely inspired combination. (By Lee Zimmerman)
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Greensky Bluegrass (from the album Stress Dreams available from Big Blue Zoo Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass offers more than string band jams. Although the extended jam offerings Greensky Bluegrass present are some of the best in the genre and newgrass world, it seems their desires run more to being an improvisational whirlwind of a band that can rile their faithful’s into dancing frenzies, then stop on a dime before shooting off into another musical direction. The quintet also has can claim songwriting chops as they produce catchy blasts of Indie Americana, ripe for Bluegrass, Newgrass, and the hard-edged, plugged-in, Folk crowd. Their latest, Stress Dreams, is both, bursts of exploratory jams and carefully crafted songs where lyric and melody play just an important role as the driving, ripping groove.
“Absence of Reason” opens Stress Dreams with a straight-up Newgrass offering, band members stretching out without going too far. The title track is an 8-minute opus that is soft with a gentle bounce with subtle psychedelic amblings. “Streetlight” follows suit, as both cuts languish in a slow groove. “Cut a Tooth” is a festival-stage cut with its Newgrass drive and instrumental frenzy, “New & Improved” is a bump-and-boogie down the road number. Greensky Bluegrass offer up big ballads, as “Reasons to Stay” is a thick closer that’s as much riffing as it is solid Pop hit. Stress Dreams jams just right though is filed under Indie and Classic Rock, a Roots band that can drop a song.
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The Whitmore Sisters (from the album Ghost Stories available on Red House Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Sibling songbirds Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore team up for their debut release as The Whitmore Sisters on Ghost Stories. Both sisters have earned the respect and acclaim of the Americana community over the past decade. Eleanor and her husband, Chris Masterson, have released four well reviewed albums together as The Mastersons. Bonnie has released four equally well received solo albums. Enjoying different, but parallel musical careers, the sisters’ touring schedules left little time for collaboration. And then Covid hit. With touring off the table, the sisters suddenly had an opportunity to reconnect, and with the encouragement of Chris, they decided to take advantage of their ‘down time’ to join their musical talents and commit them to recorded format for the first time.
“Learn to Fly” introduces us to The Whitmore’s harmonizing vocals against a background of ethereal Folk rhythms. Incorporating both electric guitar and classical violin, the song captures the weightlessness of flight. Juxtaposing the desire to fly with the fear of actually taking the controls for the first time, they sing ‘palms may be sweaty, but center it steady. Pull back, it’s time to climb’. The song reminds us that we must face our fears and step out of our comfort zone to fully enjoy all life has to offer. But this is no mere metaphor, as both sisters are licensed pilots and sing this ode to the actual experience of learning to fly. Their combined vocals soar just like the actual planes they fly.
The Whitmore Sisters’ heavenly harmonies shine throughout the album. From the Cajun spiced Country of “Ricky” and “The Ballad of Sissy and Porter” to the haunting balladry of “Superficial World of Love”, “By Design”, and “Ghost Stories”. The orchestral Folk of “Friends We Leave Behind” and “Greek Tragedy”. The Honky-Tonk/Mersey Beat fusion of “Hurtin’ for a Letdown” to the spritely Chris Montez-tinged Rockabilly of “Big Heart Sick Mind”, The Whitmore’s voices combine in powerful synergy to double the emotional impact of each song. Mostly singing about the loss of lovers and friends, Eleanor and Bonnie deliver a double dose of pathos. “Friends We Leave Behind” generalizes about the loss of lovers and friends as we travel life’s long and winding road. Like a sunless winter day, the haunting harmonies and sparse piano and banjo arrangement capture the chilly feel of emptiness when a loved one’s light leaves us. “The Ballad of Sissy and Porter” is much more personal, as they remember their friend Chris Porter who was killed in a tragic accident. Ironically, this is one of the most upbeat tempos on the album, perhaps because the pain of remembrance was too much to take straight on, or perhaps because they wanted to celebrate the good memories rather than the tragic loss. “Greek Tragedy” on the other hand immerses itself in sorrowful minor chords and orchestral blandishments to pay homage to the late, great Justin Townes Earle. Finally, departing from songs about heartache, the sisters offer a song of hope on their cover of “On the Wings of a Nightingale.” The Whitmore Sisters absolutely dazzle on this song. Performing a cover of an Everly Brothers song, written by Paul McCartney and arranged with Buddy Holly-esque baroque instrumentation, the sisters’ vocals match the Hall of Fame talent they commemorate.
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Marshall Crenshaw (from #447 on Shiny-Tone Records) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Marshall Crenshaw’s reputation as a Power Pop auteur was firmly established early on courtesy of such classics as “Someday, Someway”, “Cynical Girl”, and “Whenever You’re on My Mind”. So too, his bespectacled everyman countenance made him the perfect choice to portray Buddy Holly in the 1987 biopic ‘La Bamba’, a film that focused on Holly’s ill-fated colleague and contemporary, Ritchie Valens.
While it’s only natural that Crenshaw should win comparisons to those early Rock and Roll pioneers — especially given his urgent yet affable melodies — his career easily shines under its own auspices. That said, he can only be credited with a handful of albums and EPs in the expanse of a forty-year recording career. Notably too, it’s been six years since his last official offering, Grab the Next Train, circa 2015. The reasons for his absence remain unclear, but he still manages to occupy his time subbing as a lead singer for The Smithereens while also performing a handful of solo dates whenever time and distance permit.
Consequently, while fans and followers might have hoped for an entirely new addition to the Marshall Crenshaw catalogue, a reissue of his 1999 effort, #447, will have to suffice, at least for now. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that the freshness and vitality Crenshaw commands has always been a staple of his career. Songs such as “T.H.D.”, “Right There in Front of Me”, “Tell Me All About It”, and “Television Lights” serve as stunning reaffirmation of his ability to draw in his listeners and keep them enthralled even until the final notes fade away.
As always, Marshall Crenshaw’s affinity for seminal Rock and Roll is fully evident and unmistakable, given songs that might have once been considered radio-ready had today’s glam and gimmickry not taken the attention of the mass media. Yet, despite the distance of more than two decades, the melodies sound as invigorating as ever, proof that if, in fact, Crenshaw’s now choosing to rest on his laurels, he’s perfectly entitled to do so.
Fortunately, though, this re-release does offer some additives for those craving something new. A pair of bonus tracks, “Will of the Wind” and “Santa Fe”, augment the original eleven song line-up, the former lending a solid wallop and the latter sharing a supple sway. We can only hope that Marshall Crenshaw will consider giving us more of his music soon. (By Lee Zimmerman)
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Taylor McCall (from the album Black Powder Soul available on Black Powder Soul Records) (by Danny McCloskey)
Found laying in the dusty grit and echoing waves of distortion rolling across Black Powder Soul a tsunami of subtle sounds emanating from Taylor McCall. The South Carolina native utters mantras to the windshield, battling the blacktop with a faith found in the chorus of “Highway Will”, Taylor McCall vowing ‘the devil don’t kill me, the highway will’. Guitar chords cry out, signaling an intro to “Hell’s Half Acre”, the strumming raw and commanding as Black Powder Soul sings a remedy for ‘hounds on my heel’ as Taylor McCall raises a glass to ghosts, toasting love’s ways with “White Wine” and cruising down “South of Broadway” on a mangled melody.
Having an answer ready, when Taylor McCall received the ‘what is it’ question for Black Powder Soul, he, in turn, asked ‘how long you got? It’s the circle of life: you’re dropped off here, by the old ship of Zion, and everything in between is life itself, from good to bad. The things that clutter up the pure soul are all in here. We all have a Black Powder Soul that can explode, but there is redemption in all of us too’. Good and bad, destruction and healing are balanced in the stories of Black Powder Soul. A ragged step walks with a heavy footfall across “Lucifer” while the reading of “Surrender Blues” is a Sunday sermon told over churning rhythms of swamp Blues. The opening of Black Powder Soulfeatures Taylor’s grandfather crooning slave Gospels. Dreams ride over the chugging groove and warm organ riffs in “Wide Open” and quiet guitar notes and scattered piano ramblings are herded by a hefty beat for “Man Out of Time” as Taylor McCall weaves audio magic in the Black Powder Soul title track.
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Cat Power (from the album Covers available on Domino Recording Company)
Re-imagining, re-working the words and music of other artists has long been a part of the musical catalog of Cat Power. Her recent release, Covers, follows the same path, Cat Power stripping down instrumentation. She stays close to the guitar-bass-drum model of Garage Rock as she digs deep for a track from Ryan Gosling’s band, Dead Man’s Bones (“Pa Pa Power”), harmonizing over warbling chords on The Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes, wrapping Nick Cave’s “I Had a Dream Joe” in somber sonics and drifting on the strong current coursing under Iggy Pop’s “Endless Sea”. Cat Power hauls out Indie gems, crate digging for Covers.
The album was produced by Chan Marshall (Cat Power), featuring songs by Frank Ocean (“Bad Religion”), The Replacements (“Here Comes a Regular”), Lana Del Rey (“White Mustang”), and Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (“Against the Wind”). Late night noir plucks an upright bass for the jazzy bed where Cat Power sings seduction into Kitty Wells “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, presenting Jackson Browne’s “These Days” as a note-to-self-reflection and closing Covers with Billie Holiday’s (among others) heart tug “I’ll Be Seeing You”.
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Jeff Tweedy (from the album Chelsea Walls available on Omnivore Recordings) (by Bryant Liggett)
Jeff Tweedy’s score to the film Chelsea Walls likely slipped by Tweedy fans twenty years back, as he remains a musician who seems to have something always on the front and back burner. But a lot of things have likely slipped by even the most die-hard Tweedy fans, things buried way deeper in the obscure category than Loose Fur and his Golden Smog contributions. The album reissue for his score for the film Chelsea Walls is another sweet addition to the vast (and diverse) Jeff Tweedy musical collection. The score for Chelsea Walls is a package of greatness. There is the melodic noise, heard in “Opening Titles”, that Tweedy recorded with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, sitting alongside the scrappy industrial Funk of “Red Elevator”.
“Promising” is a softie, the final mix like a Tweedy demo, “When the Roses Bloom Again” is an extra from the Billy Bragg and Wilco sessions, and Robert Sean Leanard and Steve Zahn take a turn with “The Lonely 1” from Wilco’s Being There. “Soft and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” is tender Gospel Folk, and cuts like “The Wallman” and “Finale” are rough parts of the score that stitch it all together. This is a necessary component of the full Tweedy package. There’s Jeff Tweedy’s Electro-Folk songs that are loaded and catchy, fitting right in with his sophisticated and experimental noise; Chelsea Walls is a score in both terms, a 20-year-old collection from a great musician who in 2002 was well on his way to even more greatness. (by Bryant Liggett)
Listen and buy the music of Jeff Tweedy Chelsea Walls from Omnivore Recordings
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